May 3, 2011

To Never Come Back

As a young boy, I cried whenever my balloon slipped out of my hands. With arms outstretched, and in tears, I hopelessly watched my balloon disappear into the clouds, wishing it would come back to me.

But now I was amazed when I saw my son intentionally let go of his balloons one by one, overjoyed by each launch. He giggles in joy as he watches them fly ever higher. And then he stands in silence as they fly out of sight in the blue expanse of the sky, imagining all the places it would go.

This striking contrast of attitude between two young boys a whole generation apart has dug up the concept of Interstellar Cyclers which I have read some time ago.

Interstellar Cyclers are starships that travel around in wide circles, lightyears in diameter, spanning multiple stars, that eventually comes back to their starting point for another round trip. This idea was fueled by the contention that "accelerating a starship, only to decelerate it again, is pure lunacy" as Karl Schroeder puts it in his essay. Thus he proposed what he unambiguously called 'Schroeder Cyclers', a starship that is "initially accelerated from the Earth or a colony star to some percentage of lightspeed, and then eventually serve as a way-station for travellers, who embark and disembark at star systems it passes along its route."

I was interested in the idea at first (which is a good idea in its own right), but later realized that I personally would prefer that the whole thing rather not go back. After I witnessed the scene of my little boy staring at his balloon disappearing into the clouds--the idea of accelerating a starship only to come back at its starting point became unthinkable. I realized that it was more evocative to see a starship leave, and know outright that it will never come back. It would go in a straight line, using all it's energy to accelerate ever faster, further, and farther into the great unknown.

It can, and will, still serve as a way-station, after accomplishing its cargo drop-off missions during flybys near other star systems. Among other things, it will also serve as a Subluminal Research Lab, but ultimately it will become a relic to be visited by future generations who would have, by then, developed more advanced technology to catch up with it, upgrade and maintain it, and then overtake it to continue the process of pushing the boundaries of space exploration.

That, to me is a true 'generation starship', a symbol of that spirit of exploration that will endlessly inspire the next generation to continue pushing onwards to the edge of the great unknown.

A New Kind of Starship
Cyclers: Transportation Network Among the Stars

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